Peter Arnett has reported world conflicts for 28 years

GOING WHERE THE FIGHTING IS R RTC

January 27, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Because of an editing error, the box accompanying the article on Peter Arnett in the People section Sunday incorrectly stated that Mr. Arnett is divorced. His Vietnamese wife, Nina, lives in New York.

Washington

From the time he was a rough-hewn kiwi kid leaving his native New Zealand in search of adventure in the erupting volcano that was Southeast Asia, Peter Arnett's instinct has always been the same. To be there.

There in Indonesia. There in Laos. In Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Beirut. And now, to be there in Iraq.

As a correspondent for the Cable News Network, the 56-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning war horse -- who along with CNN colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman described the air raid over Iraq on the first night of war from a hotel room -- is the only remaining Western reporter in Baghdad.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But if his presence is applauded by many, it's also being criticized by those who believe Mr. Arnett isbeing used by the Iraqi government, which is censoring his reports, to spread its propaganda.

Early last week, Mr. Arnett reported that he was taken to the site of what the Iraqi government said was a bomb-damaged baby milk factory. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, saying that the building was a production facility for biological weapons, cautioned that "any reports coming out of Baghdad are in effect coming from the Iraqi government."

CNN's executive vice president Ed Turner responded that, "Arnett reported what the Iraqi claim was and his own observations on site. . . . CNN believes it is in the interest of our viewers to maintain the only Western journalist to watch and report from Baghdad. . . . at least someone is there sending out observations you're not going to have otherwise."

On Friday, Mr. Arnett delivered more of those observations. A photo of the correspondent sitting next to a satellite dish on the TV screen, he reported that he'd been to a residential town 100 miles outside of Baghdad where he saw heavy civilian wreckage -- "23 homes totally destroyed" -- from extensive bombing.

When asked by colleague John Holliman in Washington if the scene could have been staged by the Iraqi government for his benefit, he replied that he'd "seen bomb damage in 17 wars in the last 30 years."

Indeed, says Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, "It's arguable that Peter Arnett has seen and done more combat coverage than anyone in the history of western journalism."

Expelled from Indonesia in 1962 for reporting that angered the government, vilified by U.S. officials for his dispatches from Vietnam, beat up by Soviet militia men in 1988 during his coverage of a refusenik demonstration, this is hardly the first time Mr. Arnett has been in the hot seat.

But anyone who knows the short, wiry reporter with the flat nose and balding pate knows he wouldn't have it any other way.

"He hasn't left [Iraq] because there's still a story there and he's able to cover it," says his longtime friend George Esper, who covered Vietnam with Mr. Arnett for the Associated Press for more than 10 years. "War coverage is a passion for Peter. He was born to be a war correspondent."

"His instinct is to be there," says Mr. Halberstam, another colleague from Vietnam.

While many of his Vietnam colleagues have since settled into desk jobs or are turning out books, Mr. Arnett has wanted no part of any of that.

As his daughter, Elsa C. Arnett, a Boston Globe reporter, recently wrote, her father often told her, "Journalism is more than job to me. War reporting is my life. . . . I'm a war correspondent. I don't want to wither away in a desk job. I want to be out there reporting in the field as long as I can."

Reporting for the AP from 1962 to 1981, and for CNN since 1981 -- he was Moscow bureau chief from 1986 to 1988 and then Washington and Jerusalem correspondent -- he has traveled to nearly all of the world's trouble spots, most notably Vietnam. He stayed there for 13 years, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 and built a distinguished reputation with his revealing reports and courageous forays into the field, often through Viet Cong-occupied jungles with American soldiers.

"Some people stayed in Saigon the whole time," said Baltimore Sun associate editor Ernest B. Furgurson, who covered the Vietnam War for The Sun. "The combination of the length of time he was there, the time he spent out in the field and the eyewitness aspect of what he did won him a lot of respect."

Colleagues and friends say he has remained absorbed by Vietnam. Former AP colleague Hugh Mulligan recalls a boat trip he and Mr. Arnett took from Saigon to Bombay in the summer of 1965 as a break from covering the war. "He spent the entire time talking about Vietnam. He never could take a vacation from the war."

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